Escort advertising website Backpage.com won an appeal on the 14th of March, 2016. The ruling states that Backpage is not responsible for any trafficking that may happen because of the advertisements on their website.
Backpage provides free or cheap advertisements and has been used a lot by sex workers since the removal of Craigslist in 2010. Ads are moved to the front using Bitcoin transactions after credit card companies were pressured to stop working for the website. In recent years, the website has been subject to multiple lawsuits in different states. The website has also been subject to hearings in the United States Congress, as NSWP reported here.
Three young women who alleged they had been trafficked through ads on Backpage brought the civil case forward. They were all minors at the time the events occurred. As Mike Masnick reports at Techdirt, the case alleged that Backpage was responsible for this activity under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act (TVPRA) of 2008. The TVPRA states that, anyone who “knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value from participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known has engaged” in an act of sex trafficking.
However, Backpage argued that they were not responsible because they are protected through section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 states that websites are not responsible for the actions of their users.
The three women argued that Backpage was aware of and encouraged sex trafficking on their website. The court did not accept this assessment, upholding their protection under section 230.
Following the win for Backpage, the Senate held Backpage in contempt on the 17th of March. The vote was 96-0. Being held in contempt means a person or an organisation disrespected or disobeyed the court.
Backpage is being held in contempt for not producing documentation requested by the Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. They had requested documentation detailing how ads are approved for posting on Backpage. Backpage had produced general documentation, but the subcommittee wanted more, according to Engadget.
The vote was lead by US Senator Rob Portman. Portman has made sex trafficking one of his primary interests, sponsoring a number of anti-trafficking acts during his term as senator. Portman believes Backpage promotes underage sex trafficking.
Backpage wants to bring the issue to court. Backpage’s lawyer Elizabeth McDougall released a statement prior to the vote that read:
“For nine months, Backpage.com has respectfully, and repeatedly, asked the Senate to take the steps necessary to permit Backpage.com to obtain a review of the constitutional issues by judges, rather than by the same political figures who issued the subpoenas.
If the Senate now votes, as Backpage.com has long requested, to submit the issue to the courts, it will finally be authorising the precise course of action the company has been urging for nine months. Backpage.com looks forward to a proper consideration of the important First Amendment constitutional issues by the judiciary—the branch of government charged with protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans.”
The Senate’s lawyers may now file a federal lawsuit against Backpage to force them to hand over documents.
Escort advertisers like Backpage represent an important tool for sex workers. As NSWP’s statement condemning the raids and arrests at Rentboy.com points out, “sex workers need to be able to communicate openly with clients and managers without constantly fearing arrest, police harassment or worse. Sex workers often use advertising websites to screen clients for their own safety.”